Lesson 4: Editing (The Nasty Stuff)
It’s now time to get to the nasty stuff: the editing.
To be sure, most of you are not at all interested in becoming copy editors – you just want to edit your own stuff, quickly and efficiently. You should bear in mind, though, that anyone who edits their own papers very often has a fool for an editor.
You’re likely to be emotionally involved with what you’ve written, and in love with some bits which you should probably omit.
That said, most of you will still need to edit your own papers, so a rational approach to this would be to try and neutralize your own bias as much as possible. In other words, you should adopt a “cold” approach to editing..
The following method is a tried and true approach that yields good results in almost any written work of nonfiction:
A. Highlight every first and last sentence of every paragraph in your paper. You can copy and paste the highlighted text into a new document if that helps.
B. Read only the highlighted text. If you’ve written your paper correctly, the first and last sentences should form a readable and coherent thought, in a basic question and answer form — a mystery and a solution.
C. The final sentence of every paragraph should also lead more or less naturally into the beginning of the next paragraph. The whole thing should look like a daisy chain of questions leading to answers, which themselves lead to new questions, and then to new answers, and so on.
D. If this is indeed the situation in B and C — rejoice! You’re a really good writer and the most annoying part of the writing process, structural editing, is behind you.
E. If the highlighted text seems garbled or incoherent, however, then some editing is necessary. The incoherence would manifest itself by way of there being no question-answer relationship between the first and final sentence of the paragraph, as well as there being no sense of continuation from the last sentence of a paragraph to the following one. Solving this is straightforward, however. First, edit the first sentence of the first paragraph and make sure that it is asking a question.
G. Then start working backwards. Make sure that the last sentence in your paragraphs answer the question posed at the beginning of them. Next, take a look at the sentence that comes before the last one, ensuring that it coheres with what precedes and succeeds it. Carry on working backwards until you reach the first sentence.
Editing backwards will seem a little weird at first, but it’s actually much more efficient than editing forwards.
The reason for this is simple: you write with a purpose in mind, but you edit in order to clarify the purpose. Editing forward is too much like writing, and it may get you off track. Still…
H. If editing backwards seems too weird for you, edit forward. Just don’t blame us when the editing takes much longer than it should.
I. Note length. While editing, try to make your paragraphs roughly equal in length. If you have a paragraph that’s too long, consider splitting it into two, or even three, separate paragraphs. Every paragraph should contain roughly 4-6 sentences (this is not an exact instruction, just a rule of thumb).
J. Try to simplify the text. If a sentence includes too many parenthetical clauses, it loses clarity. You may wish to split such a sentence into two. Also, minimize the number of ellipses, semicolons, unnecessary italics, and similar signs which diminish the structural and linguistic fluidity of the paper. I often find that imposing an arbitrary limit to sentence length helps to sharpen the editing and improve the quality of the paper.
After step J you should have a reasonably coherent paper, with paragraphs – of sensible length – flowing from question, to answer, and into the next question. You should then give it another read. But this time, read it out loud, or at least make your Mac read the text for you. Some of the problems related to the flow of the text can be traced, and subsequently corrected, this way.
It goes without saying, of course, that all of the rules and advice that I’ve mentioned in the earlier articles, when talking about writing, apply here as well. At the writing stage, you’ve tried to avoid pitfalls such as weasel words, complex metaphors, and the like. At the editing stage, you should try your best to eliminate all of those pitfalls that managed to sift through into the text. In a nutshell, if you read this series carefully, you should now know:
- How to choose the right subject and question for your paper, which in the long term can save you a lot of time and frustration.
- How to systematize your research and squeeze your reading load to the minimum amount necessary.
- How storytelling in academic papers can improve your writing
- How to edit your own paper
In the next and final lesson, I’ll show you what we do in Mellel that can save you all those unnecessary sleepless nights, and replace hours of manual work with just a few clicks and keystrokes.